The Ghost in a Tree November 26, 2016Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
This little account appeared in Wilkinson and Harland, Lancashire Folk-lore (1867), 164. But they were quoting a story that had appeared in a newspaper in 1856. Beachcombing has been unable to trace the original, but honestly he didn’t try that hard.
Will it be credited that thousands of people have, during the past week, crowded a certain road in the village of Melling, near Ormskirk, to inspect a sycamore tree, which has burst its bark and the sap protrudes in a shape resembling a man’s head? Rumour spread abroad that it was the re-appearance of Palmer, who ‘had come again, because he was buried without a coffin!’ Some inns in the neighbourhood of this singular tree reaped a rich harvest.
What Beach finds so strange about this tale is how isolated and unexpected it is. Let’s go through the check list.
a) People did believe in revenants in nineteenth-century Lancashire. Check
b) People did flock to see ghosts in the nineteenth century: the ghost riot phenomenon.
c) Coffins were not always used in burials and conservative rural populations might rebel against such improprieties. Check
However, reports of people emerging from trees are emphatically not common. In fact, this appears to be unprecedented: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com for contradictions.
Chris from Haunted Ohio Books, 27 Nov 2016, gets the key to this case: ‘The original date of the “ghost in a tree” coincides with the execution of the murderer Dr WIlliam Palmer, who, I presume, is the Palmer of the story. He was buried without a coffin because of a quirk in the execution protocol of Stafford Prison where he was executed. ‘On the removal of the body, Mr. Bridges, a gentleman from Liverpool, engaged in phrenological pursuits, was permitted to take a cast of the convict’s head, and this process over, his remains were buried in a grave behind the chapel, within the precincts of the prison. A barbarous custom prevails in the prison at Stafford in the burial of criminals subjected to capital punishment, and it was adhered to in the case of Palmer. It will, perhaps, scarcely be credited that his body, on being removed from the scaffold, was divested of every article of clothing, and buried in a perfectly nude state, without even a shell. But so it was, and this was his ignominious end. [The Most Extraordinary Trial of W. Palmer for the Rugeley Poisonings, 1857 p. 7]’ Here is the Wikipedia Page. What I don’t understand is the connection between the location of the tree and Palmer. He briefly apprenticed at Liverpool, but lived most of his life in Staffordshire. However, the case was avidly followed by the British public–this was the age of “sensation” journalism, which reveled in horrid murders–so perhaps Palmer (and his indecent burial) was in a unique position to be the revenant du jour.’
Beach wrote back speculating that perhaps the sycamore sap came out in the shape of a hung man. I [Beach] can imagine a vaguely human like shape in the sap hardening and then being lowered on a tendril of the same.
Chris replied: This is just a theory, but beeches can be tapped for syrup, just like maples. They also are susceptible to something called “frost crack,” which may be what is meant by the tree bursting its bark. I’ve seen sap and resin drip patterns on various trees, but don’t recall seeing it on American beeches, which may be different than British ones. American beeches (at least in Ohio) tend to rot from the inside until they are hollow and sometimes the bark mottles. I could imagine a face being formed by bark shadings, but it would take a lot of sap to make the image of a head.
KON writes: I can’t say that I’ve heard many stories about people emerging from trees from the European perspective but I do know that some African peoples have traditions of their ancestors being formed from plants e.g. some central African pygmies have a tradition of the first man & woman emerging from a tree trunk. I believe the Quiche people of Central America hold the tradition that the first people were created from maize. Not quite a tree but still a plant! I seem to recall that the Golden Bough by James George Frazer had mention of various religious beliefs from Oceania, the Americas and Africa concerning the first people of the world being created from various natural substances like rocks, seeds, reed beds and so on although Frazer’s book was published a full 30 years too late for the tale you relate. However maybe there’s some cross-pollination going on here? Surely the knowledge would have been around for some time before Frazer wrote it up? The one and only European people-from-a-tree tale I know of is The Juniper Tree by the Brothers Grimm. They got the tale from Phillip Otto Runge but apparently his was not the only version of the story. There’s a transcript of the Grimm’s version here http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm047.html
Bruce T, 27 Nov 2016: It’s interesting a sycamore is the tree in question as they have a tendency to go hollow while alive and healthy. There were two long hunters, brothers, in the 1750’s to the north of here finishing up a season of hunting just after Washington kicked off the Seven Years War by attacking a French column in southwestern PA. They spent the winter hiding out in a large sycamore with a narrow entrance to the space inside. It was a brutal winter, they couldn’t use their rifles to hunt as the report from the shot could have given them away. They nearly starved to death in that tree. Parts of the tree itself stood until the mid-20th cen. I’ve heard tales of remains being found in sycamore hollows when the trees collapsed or were cut down. Hollow sycamores were a ready built campsite and refuge for one or two persons. A wounded or dying person ducks into hide and the tree grows around the remains that are left by the scavengers. I suspect sycamores were used the same way when large trees were still common in Europe. A dead man in a sycamore may be a folk memory that was periodically reinforced by the occasional remains being found when one tumbled or was cut.